Does trying to determine your novel’s theme make you feel like you’re back in English Lit class?
I can commiserate. Even though I loved studying literature, whenever I was asked to analyze a novel’s theme, my brain just shut down. I think this is because theme feels like a left-brain thing to me, while I’m predominantly a right-brained thinker.
So when I started studying the craft of writing four years ago, I had the same reaction whenever the topic of theme came up. I glossed over those sections, telling myself theme was only necessary in fancy-schmancy literary novels. All my young adult novel needed was a few great characters and an interesting storyline. Right?
Oh, how wrong I was.
Of course, I didn’t figure this out until I’d done everything the wrong way. But making mistakes is usually the best way for me to learn any lesson. And learn it, I did.
So whether you’re right- or left-brained, my friend, I’ll guide you through the enigma that is theme – what it is, why it’s so important, and how to choose the theme of your novel.
What is theme?
Dictionary.com defines theme as:
- a subject of discourse, discussion, meditation, or composition; topic:
- a unifying or dominant idea, motif, etc., as in a work of art.
I don’t know about you, but my eyes just glazed over.
I prefer how K.M. (Katie) Weiland defines theme in her book Outlining your Novel: Map Your Way to Success. According to Katie, theme is the heartbeat of your book.
Now that’s a concept this right-brained girl can wrap her head around!
Another great definition comes from Larry Brooks’ book Story Engineering: Mastering the Six Core Competencies of Successful Writing (which is fantastic, by the way!). According to Mr. Brooks, “theme is what your story is illuminating about real life.”
In essence, your theme is the overall message—the nugget of truth—about life that you want your readers to take away from your novel.
Does my novel even need a theme?
Absolutely. No human being can live without a heartbeat, and no novel can thrive without a theme.
Theme not only makes your story come to life, but it also gives it a purpose…a reason for being. Without a theme, your book is nothing more than a collection of characters moving through life with no real rhyme or reason.
While your themeless novel may entertain readers and even tug at their heartstrings, it’s not enough just to amuse readers or make them feel “all the feels.”
Your book should also make them think.
There must be a reason for you to bring these characters to life. If there isn’t, your reader will likely feel a little empty in the end, no matter how entertaining the book was otherwise. Used properly, theme is the glue that holds all of the other pieces together. Without it, even an intriguing plot with fascinating characters can come off feeling a little flat.
How do I choose a theme?
When searching for their novel’s theme, many writers turn to proverbs and common sayings. This is because proverbs speak universal truths about the human condition, which helps readers relate to the story.
There are hundreds—if not thousands—of proverbs and sayings to choose from. Here are just a few that would make great foundations on which to build a novel:
- Three may keep a secret if two of them are dead.
- A ship in the harbor is safe, but that’s not what a ship is for.
- Grief divided is made lighter.
- If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.
- Silence is akin to consent.
A simple Google search will yield a veritable bounty of results, many of which would make a good theme for a story. You can also find a wealth of proverbs—ranging from clever to profound—at Bible Gateway or in Ben Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanack (both free online resources).
In Outlining Your Novel, Katie Weiland suggests a different tactic, one that’s especially useful if you already have characters and a basic storyline in mind. Katie recommends that you begin by identifying your main character’s internal conflict. This is crucial because the inner conflict will always be tied to the theme.
The inner conflict will always be tied to the theme.
Next, ask yourself how his inner conflict will change as a result of the events (the external conflict) in the story and how this change will be illustrated in the novel. This process can lead you to discover your novel’s theme.
For instance, suppose your MC dreams of being an artist, but he feels pressured to get a business degree so he can carry on the family business (inner conflict). Throughout the novel, events (external conflict) force the character to finally come clean and express his desire to be an artist rather than a businessman, and his parents tell him he should follow his dreams. And—tada!—there’s the theme of your novel (follow your dreams).
(To learn more about how inner conflict, external conflict, and theme all work together, I highly recommend reading Outlining Your Novel and going through the accompanying Outlining Your Novel Workbook, both by K.M. Weiland.)
Yikes! My manuscript is finished but it doesn’t have a theme!
Friend, I hear you!
This is exactly the pickle I found myself in the first time the topic of theme smacked me in the face. (And yes, that is how it felt at the time!) As I held my finished manuscript above my head—Lion King-style—in celebration of my great achievement, my old high school nemesis popped up and said (with wicked glee), “Yoo-hoo! Forgetting something?”
Truth be told, I spent a couple of weeks moping and pouting and trying to reason my way out of what I knew really needed to be done. But finally, I said to myself, “Just buckle up, buttercup, and figure it out.”
So I dove headfirst into a study of theme and thought long and hard about the overall message of my novel and the story I really wanted to tell. Then I put my nose to the grindstone and restructured the book with my new theme in mind. (This really should have been done before I started writing in the first place, but whatever…it was NaNoWriMo, y’all. LOL) I pulled out the best parts of my manuscript to include in my new draft, and then I rewrote…
The. Whole. Damn. Thing.
But the sting didn’t last for long, because I quickly recognized that my new manuscript was so much better than the original “finished manuscript” had been. It was a novel with a heartbeat…a reason for being. And, trust me, the same will be true for your novel, as well.
If the thought of rewriting your novel has you on the verge of a panic attack, then take a deep breath. Starting over from scratch was necessary for me, but it may not be so for you. While much of what you’ve written may not jive with your shiny new theme (and the new outline that goes along with it), there will undoubtedly be many characters and scenes that still fit into the new framework.
So if your work in progress doesn’t have a clearly defined theme, then head back to the drawing board and nail that baby down ASAP. As tough (and heartrending) as this step might be, I promise your novel will thank you…and so will your readers.
How do I incorporate my theme into my novel?
In Plot Perfect: Building Unforgettable Stories Scene by Scene, author and literary agent Paula Munier explains that many writers state their novel’s theme in the very first line of the book, either in the narrative or in a line of dialogue. The theme is then carried throughout the body of the book, where the truth behind it is revealed, then it is restated once again in the end to bring the story full circle.
This is how I chose to structure the theme of my novel, Kaleidoscope. (You can read an excerpt here.) The first line of Chapter One is “Life is a kaleidoscope,” which is one of the last things the protagonist, AJ, remembers his mother saying to him before her tragic death. This, ultimately, is the theme of the novel, but even AJ doesn’t know what it means in the beginning.
When the meaning is explained at the end of the first act, AJ (and the reader) can then use that knowledge to frame everything that happens and understand why events unfold as they do. It all comes together in the resolution, when AJ restates the theme, having truly learned the meaning of his mother’s last words of wisdom through the events of the novel.
A few final tips…
Some writers choose the theme of their novel before writing a single word. Others begin the process by creating compelling characters or building on a fascinating dream they had before choosing a theme that fits those elements. Whichever camp you fall into, here are a few tips to keep in mind when determining your novel’s theme.
Make it something you believe in.
Your novel is, in a way, a reflection of you, so its theme should be something you truly believe in. While it may be tempting to follow current trends in writing or answer the latest clarion call from publishers, if you don’t believe the message your novel promotes, then the story will come across as disingenuous and lack the impact you hope to have on your reader.
No matter how passionately you believe in your theme, your reader may not agree, at least initially. Rather than preaching from the top of a soapbox—a surefire way to turn readers off—your message should be delivered with finesse. Often, the best way to present the main message of your novel is through the mouths of your characters (with nary a soapbox in sight).
Writing ain’t for cowards.
Have you ever had a theme poke you in the back of your brain again and again, whispering, “Psst, write about me”?
Do you listen? Or do you shove it back into the shadows of your mind, pretending not to hear?
Many writers, including myself, would have to confess the latter. Why? Because the thought of writing about that particular theme kinda scares us to death. Perhaps it touches on an old wound that hasn’t quite healed or deals with a controversial issue we know will bring us blowback.
If you’ve given in to this fear, don’t be too hard on yourself. I totally get it. I mean, I wrote a young adult novel with a pro-life message. In today’s rabid cancel culture, that’s akin to waving a red flag at an angry bull. So I understand the fear of writing a novel with a hot-button message. But you know what I think you should do?
Write it anyway.
The themes that really matter to you—those things that just won’t let you sleep at night—are the very things you should be writing about. Yes, there will undoubtedly be some readers who don’t agree with your message, but that will be true no matter what you write.
So write what your conscience tells you to write. Because, trust me, there are people out there who will appreciate your message…people who need your message.
So be brave, my friend, and write the story you are meant to write.
Let’s grow together!
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Penny for your thoughts…
What’s the theme of your work in progress? Need any help figuring it out? Tell me about it in the comments below.
I’ll be back next Wednesday to shine a light on “show, don’t tell.” Telling is a sneaky little bugger, but I’ll help you find it – and fix it – in your novel. Until then, buckle up, buttercup, and let’s write!
In case you missed it: Want to make your dialogue shine? Learn how in my three-part series, How to Write Riveting Dialogue.